*Small Kid Time New Year’s Celebration

by Milt Lum, Staff Writer

Small kid time is a pidgin English phrase used by aging residents and expats from Hawaii to describe their childhood experiences. Island culture at the time before statehood, internet, and cell phones, reflected a care-free period of running about with slippas (flip-flops), eating with your fingers, having shaved-ice drool on your t-shirt, and burning firecrackers on New Year’s Eve.

Firecrackers in Hawaii are as iconic a symbol of welcoming the new year as is the ball descending in Times Square in New York City. Firecrackers were introduced to Hawaii by the immigrant Chinese laborers who were imported as indentured servants to work the sugar plantations in the mid-nineteenth century. They celebrated each year by burning fireworks to ward off the evil spirits and portend good fortune for another year. That tradition was embraced by other ethnic groups such that it has become a part of the island culture much to the dismay of pet owners, legislators, and health professionals. In spite of legislation in 2011 outlawing the burning of fireworks without a license, the illegal practice has continued unabated.

My grandfather’s yard was the center for fireworks in our neighborhood because he had the most and loudest firecrackers. He entered retirement having sold his retail store but still maintained a quiet dignity preserved from being a business owner and a merchant during the post-war years. Fireworks was his way of maintaining his prestige.

Goon-goon (grandpa) gave each of us a paper bag containing packets of firecrackers. Each packet contained four strands of 24 firecrackers wrapped tightly together. My older brother, three years older and wiser in the art of pyrotechnics, was the leader and enforcer. His first order of business was to meticulously unwrap each strand being careful to preserve the fuse to each individual firecracker. Unwrapped and filling an empty cigar box, the individual packets morphed into an awesome arsenal.

Burning the individual firecrackers throughout the day was the perfect surrogate babysitter for the older folks: We were out of their hair while they were engaged in gossip and food preparation. Using a joss stick or punk as the ignitor, each firecracker was lit and held until a critical moment when it was tossed off the porch with the intent of it bursting mid-air. Having it explode on the ground would label you as being a sissy while having it explode near the porch or in your hand relegated you to being a dodo bird. More than one dodo bird made you relinquish your punk until you redeemed yourself by retrieving all the unexploded firecrackers to replenish the dwindling supply.

The crescendo of exploding fireworks around the neighborhood escalated as each hour moved toward midnight. Our supply of firecrackers had diminished by this time. We eagerly awaited the unveiling of the forbidden stash, off limits to the small kids. Goon-goon appeared in the hour before midnight and with him came the Roman candles, skyrockets, and bags of big checker bombs, firecrackers twice the size of the puny ones we were throwing. The crown jewel of the arsenal always appeared last – Duck Brand 10,000. Uncoiled it was a six-foot strand of tightly wound checker bombs bunched together along a single cord culminating in a hexagonal package packed with a cluster of checker bombs.

Goon-goon called for the stick, his eight-foot mango picker pole, to which he attached one end of the large Duck Brand strand. Setting that aside, he began the prelims by intermittently lighting packets of checker bombs tossing them into the driveway and street. Roman candles shot intermittent bursts of colored lights into the night sky, while skyrockets sizzled a fiery and jagged trail into the sky and fell back to earth to litter someone else’s yard.

The smoke thickened and the neighbors joined the chorus. A few minutes before midnight, Goon-goon carried the stick to the street and leaned the pole against the stone retaining wall. He grasped the long dangling end of the strand in one hand, lit the fuse, and held it until the very last minute before releasing it to explode around him. He stood there alone silhouetted in smoky haze while the rest of us watched with fingers plugging our ears as the exploding checker bombs inched up the string. He didn’t flinch even as the string came to its climactic burst as the cluster exploded with a roar. For us kids it was over for another year, and with his passing years later that tradition died with him.

Before going to bed, we had to have a bowl of jook, a rice soup flavored with pig’s stomach, sweet radish, chicken livers, and pork meatballs. Smelling of burnt red paper, punk, and firecrackers, we were ushered into bed with the assurance that all of the nasty ghosts had been expelled and good fortune awaited us when we awoke.